Copyright 50 A.D.?

September 29, 1991

The Huntington Library of San Marino, Calif., ended a 39-year scholarly scandal and struck a blow for freedom of information by making the Dead Sea Scrolls available, on microfilm through other libraries, to all scholars who ask. About time.

The monopoly stewardship by a handful of editors -- as though they own copyright on stuff written 2,000 years ago -- is broken. The Huntington Library, a respected research institute, may have acted from a legal gray area, based on the disputed right of the donor to give it negatives without restrictions. The "trust" the library broke was not one it undertook. Its action sprang from a grasp of right and wrong in scholarship and ethics.

Dead Sea Scrolls is the name given to some 800 pieces of parchment and papyrus in Hebrew and Aramaic dating from 200 B.C. to 50 A.D., found in five sites of the West Bank of the Dead Sea, between 1947 and 1956, that wound up in the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. Then under Jordanian authority, the scrolls were given to a regime of seven eminent Western, Christian, biblical scholars in 1952. A slow process of publication and translation began. After Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem in 1967, this regime remained intact with one Israeli scholar added and Israel's Antiquities Authority holding the umbrella.

The Dead Seas Scrolls shed light on the origins of Christianity and post-Biblical Judaism. At stake is the heritage of all Christians and all Jews and the history of humanity. The most spectacular findings were made public in the 1950s. Yet control by an inbred band of editors, bequeathing proprietary rights to favored proteges, has denied access to equally reputable scholars. This has given birth to conspiracy theories alleging that material was suppressed for contradicting current doctrine, theories unsupported by known fact.

A few years' monopoly for the original scholars was reasonable. Stretching it to four decades, shutting out researchers for their .. productive lives, was unconscionable. Academic protests grew. Then two scholars at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati began publication of texts reconstructed by computer from a concordance (an index of words in context) published by authorized scholars. Now the Huntington's initiative -- providing lawsuits don't stop it -- makes reconstruction unnecessary.

Apologists for the scrolls establishment claim that the need for the Huntington Library's initiative ended when a controversial chief editor was replaced last year and publication set for translations of remaining material in 1997. In fact, access created by the Huntington is likely to end distrust and shore up acceptance of the authorized translation. This should have been done a long time ago.

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